Sandi Leroux remembers the yelling the most.
The mother of Sydney Leroux has a story to tell about her daughter’s experience climbing the ladder of Canadian soccer’s elite player programs before she switched allegiance to the United States, with whom she won Olympic and Women’s World Cup titles.
Leroux says the toxic training environment in Vancouver forced her daughter to make a choice as a teenager between quitting soccer entirely or moving to the US to pursue a career in her father’s country of birth.
The gatekeeper to success in the Canada women’s program at that time was the now-infamous disgraced coach Bob Birarda, who was quietly released from his dual role as coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps and Canada Under-20 women’s teams in 2008 after allegations of abuse.
As Sydney’s prodigious talent was more widely noticed, Leroux recalls Birarda contacting her to say her teenage daughter should join training sessions with his pay-to-play private academy – a two-hour drive from their family home. Leroux said her daughter wouldn’t be able to make it and explained: “I am a single mom and I work full time.”
“‘Do you know who I am?’” Leroux recalls Birarda shouting at her. “He started listing who he was and who he had coached. He was like … a bully. By the time we left Canada, Birarda had control of everything. He had the Whitecaps. He had the U-20s women’s team. It was crazy how he took over everything.”
Leroux recalls her daughter telling her of a trip to Texas while training with the Canada Under-20 team in the 2004-05 season. Birarda was assistant coach of the Canada Under-20 team on the trip and, according to Leroux, players were called into his hotel room for one-on-one meetings.
Says Leroux: “Syd called me and said ‘Mom, Bob makes us go in his room’. By yourself. One of the players came out and said, ‘Oh, he’s gross. He told me how pretty I was’. She said it was so creepy.”
Leroux said the silence around Birarda’s eventual departure struck her as odd at the time. “When things really got heated up with Bob Birarda [in 2008] we had already left Canada,” she says. “When they said they had let him go from the Whitecaps and the Under-20 team I knew immediately that he had done something. Why was this so quiet? Why is everybody being so quiet? Why is everything so hush-hush? That really bothered me.”
Birarda was allowed to coach female youth players after leaving his role with the Whitecaps and Canada in 2008, after internal investigations into his conduct. He was arrested last year in Vancouver charged with six counts of sexual exploitation, two counts of sexual assault, and one count of child luring over a 20-year period between 1988 and 2008. The charges against Birarda are understood to involve at least three former soccer players. He is currently out on bail and has yet to enter a plea.
Sydney’s time with Canada’s national youth teams became confusing for the player and her mother. A national team administrator told Sydney she had been cut for disciplinary reasons, while her coaches would tell her that she was still very much part of the team. Sydney’s talent meant she would often play with, and against, girls several years older than her within Canada’s elite youth program. This presented other problems.
“She was getting bullied [by players] and she would come home crying every night saying, ‘Mom if this is what it is like, I don’t want to play soccer any more,” recalls Leroux (similar accusations have been made by Hope Solo against the US women’s team).
Sydney told her mom that if she couldn’t move to the US, she would quit soccer.
“She was getting burned out,” says Leroux. “She was little. It was crazy. A couple of coaches were the biggest bullies. It was a horrible experience playing soccer here in Vancouver. It was a culture of bullying.”
Canada Soccer told the Guardian that “it is not aware of any bullying allegations in relation to [Leroux’s] time with the women’s national team program.” It added: “Canada Soccer has implemented a third-party independent review of the events of 2008. This will fully review the process that was followed by Canada Soccer and the investigation that was undertaken by the ombudswoman at the time. We are limited in making further comment until this investigation has concluded.”
Later, Leroux would be coached by Hubert Busby Jr when she played for the Whitecaps in 2011. An investigation by the Guardian revealed allegations of attempted sexual coercion by Busby during his time with the team in 2010 and 2011. He has since been suspended from his job as coach of Jamaica’s women’s team. Busby denies the allegations.
“Busby let [Sydney] do whatever she wanted to do,” Leroux says. “Sydney was going through a break up at the time and he let her leave and go to the States to do whatever she needed to do. I heard about what happened with him, though, and it is a shame.”
Leroux’s comments come as Canada Soccer announced last week that law firm McLaren Global Sport Solutions, a Toronto sports governance consultancy, would lead an investigation into how the national governing body handled the removal of Birarda in 2008. That announcement followed Major League Soccer appointing law firm Rubin Thomlinson to investigate how Whitecaps executives had dealt with the allegations involving Birarda and Busby.
The complex relationship between Canada Soccer and the Whitecaps is underlined by generational ties between the head of Concacaf, Victor Montagliani – a former president of Canada Soccer who was vice-president of the organization at the time of Birarda’s departure – and Bob and Dan Lenarduzzi, longtime Vancouver Whitecaps executives.
Montagliani and the Lenarduzzis, whose fathers were friends, grew up together in East Vancouver and played on the same teams – even as adults.
In a 2015 interview with The Province, Bob Lenarduzzi – Whitecaps president from 2011 to 2019 – credited Montagliani with creating a player pathway from local teams to national rosters.
“We sat down and said this is crazy, why don’t we figure out who should be doing what?” Bob Lenarduzzi told the Province. “Victor was the one we started the dialogue with. Now there’s a better working relationship between the pro clubs and the CSA.”
A Concacaf spokesperson said Montagliani had no direct oversight of the Canada national teams at the time of the alleged events involving Birarda despite being a vice-president, national teams, of Canada Soccer when they occurred. According to the spokesperson, Montagliani’s role dealt with fiduciary oversight, and he was not aware of any of the bullying allegations mentioned by Sandi Leroux. Concacaf and Montagliani have said they welcome a review into the 2008 investigation of Birarda. Montagliani is also a vice-president of Fifa.
Leroux explains that hesitancy to speak up about allegations of abuse and bullying came from what she describes as a village environment in Vancouver at the time.
“Everyone knew each other,” Leroux says.
Yet as investigations begin, she now expects more players to come forward with allegations.
“It was horrible,” Leroux says. “It really was. You felt that it was the men’s club. That you couldn’t do anything. You couldn’t speak. You couldn’t complain to anybody. You would be too scared. [Many players don’t speak because they] don’t want to lose the chance to work for Canada Soccer in the future or lose their position on the team. Even I’m still worried about saying things about Sydney. They all cover for each other.”
Sydney Leroux, who currently plays for Orlando Pride in the NWSL, went on to play 77 times with the US women’s national team between 2011 and 2017. She won an Olympic gold medal in 2012 and was part of the US roster that won the 2015 World Cup held in Canada.
“I kept a lot of the problems from Sydney at the time because Sydney was so young and didn’t want her to have to deal with it,” Leroux says. But she says her daughter was so keen to leave the environment that she had little choice but to move to the US to pursue her career.
“Sydney would have quit soccer if she stayed in Canada,” she says. “It bothers me today that I didn’t do something at the time but I knew that if I did they would punish her. But she was already getting punished and I didn’t do anything. If she had been treated good maybe she wouldn’t have left. It could have been different. We probably wouldn’t have looked at another option if it was good.”